Letter from America #13
An Indecent Proposition
The election of Barack Obama signified many things, and one of these was the apparent failure of the Right’s ‘culture wars’ strategy. This concept had its roots in the 1960s, when Nixon’s Republicans sought to mobilize the ‘silent majority’ (who they believed to be innately conservative) against 60s radicalism. It worked in 1968, when a year usually remembered for is revolutionary potential saw Nixon reelected, with some southern states voting even further to the right for the racist segregationist George Wallace. The idea that the working class vote could be split by appealing to conservative ‘values’ seemed to work again for Reagan in the 1980s and for George W Bush in the 2000s.
The idea that the Democrats lost in these decades because they alienated white working class people through the adoption of radical ideas is deeply flawed. It is difficult, for example, to see what was radical about John Kerry’s campaign in 2004. But it is true, however, that the Democrats’ failure to put forward economic arguments that would appeal to the working class, or, in 2004, to make a clear anti-war argument, made it easier for the Republicans to push their ‘values’ agenda. For the Republicans of course, ‘values’ include homophobia, opposition to affirmative action, denial of women’s right to choose, and so on.
Obama’s election marked a shift away from that. Not because Obama is a radical, but because the logic of the disastrous economic implosion, and the hugely unpopular war in Iraq, forced him to place these issues at center stage. And the electorate responded, ignoring Obama’s ethnicity, his Muslim background, or his supposed links to terrorists to elect the country’s first Black president, and the first Democrat to win over 50% of the popular vote since Carter in 1976.
There is, however, one area where the ‘culture wars’ still seem to be raging, and that is the question of same-sex marriage. On election night last year, amid the celebrations of Obama’s victory, liberals in California were lamenting the passage of Proposition 8, which amended the state’s constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Less well publicized was the success of similar votes in Florida, Arizona, and Arkansas. This week, the California Supreme Court heard an appeal from Proposition 8’s opponents, arguing that the ban is unconstitutional – the court’s decision is yet to be announced.
We on the left used to take a rather stand-offish position on this issue, arguing that, while of course same-sex couples should have the right to marry, it was hardly the central issue of the struggle. The desire for LGBT people to emulate the bourgeois nuclear family, with all the tensions, lies and hypocrisy that went with that institution, wasn’t something that struck us as particularly liberating. Such as position would be unthinkable today, as the issue of ‘gay marriage’ has become a symbol of the entire argument over the rights of LGBT people. When the Right go to the effort of organizing referendums to change state constitutions, for the sole purpose of interfering in people’s personal lives, it’s obvious that this is a human rights issue which the left cannot ignore.
Although the California vote received the most attention, the sheer bigotry of gay marriage opponents is best illustrated by the ‘Unmarried Couple Adoption Ban’, which does exactly what it says on the tin – denies unmarried couples, whether gay or straight, the right to adopt children. In other words, Arkansas’s self-proclaimed defenders of the family would rather deny children a family than have them brought up by people living in the ‘wrong’ kind of relationship. Just for good measure, Florida voted to end benefits for unmarried couples, including straight couples. In these circumstances, the idea that an attack on minorities is an attack on all us ceases to be mere rhetoric, as the gay-bashers seek to impose their narrow definition of ‘family’ on everyone.
The activists fighting to overturn Proposition 8 in the courts are absolutely right to do so. But they need to win the argument with those working class people (including many African-Americans) who voted for Obama but also voted for Proposition 8. The right-wing media gleefully seized on the fact that the number of Black Californians voting for the gay-marriage ban was about equal to the proposition’s margin of victory. This of course blatantly ignores just how many white people also voted for it, but it shows the potential for the Right to use divide-and-rule tactics among minorities. Clearly, homophobia has to be challenged not just directly (although Californian activists report that they are winning the argument with many former ‘yes’ voters), but indirectly, in the context of building mass movements that unite people across boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality. As the economy plunges deeper into crisis, there is clearly a danger that working class people will be encouraged to take out their frustrations on minorities.
Which brings me to the good news. There are signs of resistance amid the gloom. Back before Christmas, there was a lot of publicity about the struggle of the workers of Republic Windows and Doors. These mainly Latino workers in Chicago were laid off without the severance pay to which they were legally entitled. After a lot of media publicity, most of it favorable, their story was lost in the saga of Rod Blagojevich, corrupt governor of Illinois. What the media neglected to tell us is that the Republic workers won! They demonstrated that workers can fight back even in a recession, and in doing so can unite people of different backgrounds. We’re going to need a lot of that kind of spirit in the months and years ahead.